Shell Handed a Grab Bag

Jeff Shell, named the first-ever president of Comcast Programming last week, has his work cut out for him.

Shell, a much-respected News Corp. veteran, will have to find ways to most efficiently manage a veritable grab bag of cable networks — ranging from E! Entertainment Television to regional sports channels — that in many ways have operated as little kingdoms, with their own marketing and affiliate-sales teams.

It appears Shell will also be the executive who’ll oversee the launches and rollouts of several new Comcast networks, namely its 24-hour preschool channel and services spawned by the MSO’s participation in a Sony Corp.-led $4.9-billion purchase of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc.

Shell’s resume is perfect for the task at hand. He enjoyed a successful track record operating groups of cable channels as president of the Fox Cable Networks Group, and bailed out a company mired in legal and operational problems in Gemstar-TV Guide International Inc.

The official announcement of Shell’s appointment came nearly two months after word first surfaced that he was the leading contender to be named Comcast’s programming czar [Multichannel News, Nov. 29, 2004]. Shell resigned as Gemstar’s CEO in December, and according to federal filings agreed to advise the on-screen guide company until April 29, when his pact with Gemstar would have expired.

As a result, Shell (who’ll report to Comcast chief operating officer Steve Burke) starts his new job May 2.

Comcast, the nation’s biggest MSO, is looking to become a content king as well. Shell, who couldn’t be reached for comment, will manage a portfolio that the MSO last week named “Comcast Programming,” a grouping that includes the company’s full ownership or investments in E!, Style, G4, The Golf Channel, Outdoor Life Network, TV One, International Channel Networks, several regional-sports channels and “the new children’s and Sony/MGM networks that are in formation,” according to Comcast’s press release.

The video-on-demand component of the preschool network reportedly could kick off before Shell starts.

“Content has become an increasingly important part of our business over the past few years, and we expect to continue to expand aggressively in this area,” Burke said in a statement.

Industry insiders expect Shell to restructure the portfolio and to some degree consolidate operations, like affiliate sales, for its many networks. All the major programmers — News Corp., Viacom Inc. and Discovery Networks U.S. — centralize such functions as affiliate sales and ad sales to save money and create leverage and clout with distributors and advertisers.

Comcast last year consolidated ad sales for its networks, naming E! veteran Dave Cassaro as president of Comcast Network Advertising Sales.

It’s expected Shell will name an affiliate-sales chief as well. Some industry observers said distribution growth has been laggard for some of Comcast’s networks.

While Shell’s duty is to manage Comcast’s existing channels, Amy Banse will continue to seek out new programming investments for the MSO. Last month, Banse was promoted and named senior vice president of content development for Comcast and executive vice president of content development for Comcast Cable Communications Inc.

She is also now charged with developing content across all of the MSO’s platforms — video, VOD and broadband.

Banse reports to Burke and Comcast CEO Brian Roberts. Cassaro, who once reported to Banse, will now report to Shell, as will E! Networks president Ted Harbert, who had reported to Burke.

In the spirit of marketing the MSO’s channels more aggressively as a group, Comcast Network Sales will hold its first upfront Feb. 15 in New York City.

Shell is relocating from Los Angeles to Philadelphia.